Empires come and empires go. In this part of the world, with the footprints of the British and the French, the importance of ancient kingdoms to national myths, and seeing everywhere the twilight of the superpower to our east and the ascent of the one to our north, the legacy of an earlier colonial contest has been lost to time.
When the Spanish made their first expeditions into Cambodia, the country was at a protracted war with the Netherlands, joined in union with erstwhile colonial rival Portugal, and had a judicial system outsourced to the Inquisition. It was in this context that the Dominican missionary Gabriel de San Antonio wrote an extended account of his voyage up the Mekong River at the beginning of the 17th century to spread the Lord’s word and provide King Don Philippe with an assessment of the region’s colonial potential.
True to contemporary style, the author’s work is coloured by occasionally fanatical expressions of Christian virtue, as he recounts the intrigues against him by breakaway factions of the church and condescends in his descriptions of local spiritual mores. At one time, de San Antonio matter-of-factly states that sodomy is a regular feature of the monkhood, passively as a child and actively as an adult – something the editor of the English translation dismisses as “sheer calumny”.
The book is worth reading for its insight into a reasonably unacknowledged period of Cambodian history, and for the author’s regular rhetorical flourishes. In one particularly memorable instance, he recounts an earlier expedition organised at the behest of the governor of the Philippines, who wished to gain the good graces of King Apram Langara. Presents of gold and jewellery were ignored by the royal court, who were instead fascinated with the donkey which accompanied the guests.
In the days to come, the donkey seemed aware of its celebrity status amongst the locals, strutting and braying around the foreign encampment as if on show, and its masters began to love it as they would a fellow soldier.
When a dispute forced the hurried departure of the explorers, the donkey was held back from the fleet and “brayed as much and showed as much affliction as if it had understood it was captive… the [explorers] were saddened because each of them regretted leaving it behind as deeply as if it had been one of them.”
A brief and truthful relation of events in the Kingdom of Cambodia by Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio is available from second hand bookstores.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]